No doubt about it, Durham has an ongoing love affair with West African rhythms and dance. Few moments are as thrilling as the appreciative roar of an audience after witnessing the amazing beauty and power of a performance, or the joy that spreads across the faces of passers-by dancing to the sounds of a battery of drummers playing in downtown on a warm summer night.
The art of traditional West African music orchestration first arrived in Durham in the early 1980s with the arrival of dance titan and Raleigh native, Charles “Baba Chuck” Davis, who founded DanceAfrica, The Chuck Davis Dance Company and the African American Dance Ensemble.
Davis’ work, too, with the American Dance Festival at Duke University was always magnificent. His work throughout the city spawned ongoing African dance and drum classes at community centers, college campuses and dance studios. Meanwhile local practitioners of the art form with world class chops regularly perform on Durham stages, festivals, classrooms, school auditoriums, drum circles and city sidewalks.
At the center of the West African dance tradition is the hourglass-shaped djembe drum, arguably the most iconic instrument on the African continent. The instrument’s origins date to the 12th century in Mali, West Africa. According to Mali’s Bambara people, the name djembe comes from the saying, “anke dje’, anke be’ ,” which translates to “everyone gather in peace.”
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Khalid Abdul N’Faly Saleem, an African music specialist who is considered one of the djembe’s premiere ambassadors, is credited with pioneering the instrument’s acceptance throughout the Southern United States, when he served as the first musical director of the African-American Dance Ensemble that he co-founded in Durham with Davis in 1982.
Saleem first heard the djembe in the 1960s at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum.
“The type of sound that it produced, the range of the sound, the brightness, the excitement of it, especially with an orchestra,” hooked him, he said in a 2016 story about the instrument with Walter magazine.
Saleem helped make the Bull City one of the nation’s drum capitals that has attracted world-class “djembefolas,” or “one who plays the djembe,” from across the African continent and throughout the United States. They include Pline Mounzeo from the Congo; Osei Appiagyei from Ghana; Teli Shabu from Liberia; and Cheikh Dieng from Senegal.
Stateside artists Bradley Simmons from Brooklyn; Modibo Keita, Fahali Igbo and Akunda Lumumba from Detroit; and Fred Strauther from East St. Louis and Robert Corbett from Washington have made the Triangle their home.
Meanwhile, homegrown virtuosos Atiba Rorie, Beverly Botsford, Bashir Shakur and Jim Roberts, along with kindred spirits like Caique Vidal and Batala Durham, Triangle Drumming and Wellness, The NC Rhythm Project, Hindugrass, Triangle Taiko, help make the community even richer.
Releases by Triangle musicians — “The Tao of Time,” by Jim Roberts in October and Africa Unplugged’s, “The EP, Vol. 2” in April — both highlight the West African drum and dance tradition that has been one of the defining elements of Durham’s vibrant musical scene for the past 30 years.
‘The Tao of Time’ by Jim Roberts
Roberts, 59, is a native of Chapel Hill who has taught at Elon University since 2007, where he is the director and founder of the Elon World Percussion Ensemble. “The Tao of Time” features a diverse group of musicians, including Grammy Award-winning artist Victor Wooten.
Roberts, a peace activist, says the inspiration for the 19-track album came in 2006 at the 10th anniversary of PeaceJam, an organization dedicated to inspiring children by bringing Nobel Peace Prize Laureates to their school. Twelve laureates, including the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, talked about their experiences of struggle and visions of change.
Roberts worked on “The Tao of Time” for 10 years before its release in October 2018. He describes it as a concept album that takes listeners on a musical voyage while expressing views on religion, spirituality, war and peace. Roberts uses his work to speak passionately about the quest for world peace and the healing power of the drum.
He also pays homage to former teachers and other famed percussionists, including Babatunde Olatunji, Eddie “Bongo” Brown and Khalid Saleem. One track, “The Isle of Umoja,” pays tribute to Davis, who died in 2017.
The narrator on the track tells listeners that hundreds of years from now, humanity will discover Davis and his enduring message: “After the great 1,000-year war ending in 3211, the human civilizations on earth were all but destroyed. Humanity began rebuild itself but ever so slowly. In the carnage they found hidden in an arcane arts repository, audio of a great dance master, Baba Luck, whose message was Peace, Love Respect for Everybody – Umoja means unity.”
“The Tao of Time”’s sound collage is akin to a visit to a visual art gallery. Rich, varied: some of the musical tracks are striking, while others are challenging to appreciate at first listen.
The album works best when Roberts uses his authentic voice, particularly on “When Will There Be Peace.”
The track, “Spang Spang A Lang” is a daring mash-up that calls to mind a blending of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and beat poetry. The piece is buttressed by the jazz language of a saxophone while chronicling the influence of African rhythms to Congo Square in New Orleans and the birth of jazz.
Fittingly, the best track is “Drum Language,” which pays tribute to Saleem, who was Roberts’ first teacher of the West African music tradition.
‘The EP, Vol. 2’ by Africa Unplugged
Soon after Atiba Rorie arrived in Durham at the age of nine, everyone who heard him play the djembe knew he was something special. His parents were heavily into African culture, and the great Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji is his godfather.
He listened to African rhythms before he was even born and took his first steps by pulling himself up on a djembe.
Rorie started studying with Bradley Simmons, a percussion instructor at Duke University who was the musical director with the African-American Dance Ensemble when Rorie began learning from him.
Rorie earned a degree in classical percussion from UNC-Greensboro in 2007 and then spent a year studying the art form in Guinea, West Africa. He now teaches at Guilford College and serves as an accompanist for modern and West African dance classes at his alma mater.
In 2011, he decided he wanted to play solely acoustic, or “unplugged music.”
“The basic idea was this,” Rorie told The News & Observer. “If we had never lost our traditional drums, what would black music sound like?”
“Sankofa” comes from a proverb in the Twi language of Ghana, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi.” This translates to “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten,” Rorie said in press materials.
That led to forming a band called Africa Unplugged, with the djembe and its bass accompaniment, the dunun drums, at the center of the band’s sound.
The band released the six-track, “EP Vol. 1” in 2014. “EP Vol. 2” combines the village and city drumming styles of Mali with both rural and urban sounds from the African diaspora.
Rorie’s disarmingly warm and personal approach to songwriting and arranging takes listeners on what he describes in press materials as “a sonic journey from West Africa, to the nightclubs and juke joints of the U.S. ‘chitlin circuit,’ as well as the beach parties and dance halls of the Caribbean.”
The band, is composed of Nicaragua native Cesar Oviedo on bass, with Durham natives Will Darity on lead guitar, along with Lamar Lewis and Elisha Harris on the dununs. Rorie is the djembefola, lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist.
Notable tracks are “Didadi” and “Souaressi,” which are both from Mali, West Africa.
“Didadi” tells a playful, energetic story about a summer of young love and the events that leads to a couple’s first kiss before it segues into a smoking funk riff that features Darity on lead guitar.
The souful, reggae-infused “Souaressi” is the band’s take on a traditional Malian song about a family that decorated their horses and prompted them to dance.
Another tune, “Let U Go,” was based on a hip-hop idea that breaks into a masterful Sabar rhythm from Guinea.
While “The Tao of Time” and Africa Unplugged, “The EP, Vol. 2” are two very different musical offerings from Durham’s arts reservoir, they’re both well worth the listen.